Thursday, January 17, 2013

A girl grows up in a unique situation, and eventually learns where she belongs

The introduction of sentient androids to the general population will be fraught with legal and ethical questions. What defines sentience? Can it be tested for? Does self-awareness come with rights that would supersede the ownership rights of its creator?

These dilemmas are part of the backdrop of Cassandra Rose Clarke's The Mad Scientist's Daughter. We meet Caterina Novak as a child. The daughter of a brilliant roboticist, she's had a carefree but isolated life. most of what she's learned so far has been overheard watching her father work in the laboratory downstairs. 

But one day, the family receives a new member. His name is Finn, and at first Cat doesn't know what to make of him. Tasked with being Cat's tutor along with his duties as her father's assistant, he is the first person Cat could truly call a friend.

Cat's mother, however, is less than thrilled with how her daughter is being raised. She feels that Cat is growing altogether too attached to this...construct...and insists that she be enrolled in the town high school. For better or worse, at least Cat gets out among more normal people. But when ever she can, she still gravitates to her first companion.

In fact, all throughout her life, Cat seems to loop back to her childhood friend. When an adolescent house party turns ugly, it is Finn she calls to rescue her. At her wedding, it is during her dance with Finn that she feels most contented. And later, back at her childhood home, it is Finn's room that holds the most memories.

Can a girl, growing up with a robot for companionship, learn to have real relationships with messy, imperfect humans? Does an AI have the same right to the pursuit of happiness that a human has? Where did Finn, light-years more advanced than any other robot Cat's ever seen, come from? 

Clarke does a superb job pacing the novel, keeping the reader from becoming bored with the starving-artist-ennui that Cat faces in her 20s, and keeping the story centered on the growth of both Cat and Finn throughout their lives. Looking back at the book from the end, the subtitle on the cover - 'A Tale of Love, Loss and Robots' - is perhaps the most perfect description possible. Cat loses a lot throughout this book, but in the end, she gains perhaps the only life a mad scientist's daughter could live.

Highs: Without giving too much away, the final scene in the book perfectly echoes the first scene, bringing a very satisfying conclusion to the story.

Lows: Cat makes a lot of bad choices, for years, trying to find herself and it makes the reader want to slap her on more than one occasion.

Verdict: As a science geek, I continually wanted more of the bioethics and robot rights subplot, but that would have been a different story altogether. This story, of a slightly misfit young woman struggling to find her place in the world, is beautifully crafted as it is.

Further Reading: Pluto, The Android's Dream

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